Mesopotamian Monday: Hymn of Sargon II to Nanay

Just as modern-day artists and religious practitioners write hymns of worship for gods, ancient scribes also wrote hymns for gods. The most significant difference between hymns of today and hymns of 2700 years ago is the culture and society in which hymns were written and composed. In other words, hymns presume the reader has a different type of knowledge. For example, when one reads Amazing Grace, the hymn assumes a certain degree of knowledge about Christian religious traditions. The same is true with ancient Mesopotamian hymns. In order demonstrate this, I will briefly examine a hymn of Sargon II to Nanay [1].

Generally speaking, this text is a prayer to Nanay by Sargon II. Because the tablet on which the text was written is broken, though, it is difficult to identify the flow of the text. It roughly consists of a description of cultic performers, a blessing for Sargon II, and a prayer against crop pests [2]. What I am interested in, though, is the particular deity invoked and her associations in the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE.

The deity invoked in this prayer is Nanay, a deity who emerged in first in Sumerian civilization. By the 1st millennium, though, she became associated with the god of Borsippa, Nabû, at the temple of Ezida [3]. In terms of the family of deities, Nabû was equivalent to Muati, the son of Marduk (lines 2-5). Moreover, Nabû’s divine specialty was in the field of writing. As the deity of writing, his temple in Borsippa was known for being a center of scribal learning and scholasticism [4]. Therefore, by association, Nanay was part of divine household which specialized in scribal learning and scholasticism. In what follows, I will provide two examples as to why understanding this cultural background is essential to understanding the logic of the prayer of Sargon II to Nanay.

First, in the hymn we read a description of what Nanay does: “The knowledgeable physician whom she does not [guide], His hand is faltering before his clients. Without her, who can do anything?” In essence, she enables physicians to do their jobs. The phrase “knowledgeable physician” uses the Akkadian word asû. The asû is known in Mesopotamia as a physician, inasmuch as he employs magical materials as means to heal and provide therapy to the sick. What this hymn suggests, then, is that the knowledge of these ancient physicians was, first and foremost, made possible on account of Nanay’s assistance.

Second, we read that she plays a role in preventing plagues against the crops: “Keep affliction and loss afar off from him: The fell locust plague that destroys the grain, the vile cicade-pest that denudes the orchards, that cut off the food offerings of god and goddess” (lines 23-26). Although Nanay is not the goddess of fields, irrigation, or anything of the sort, she functions in context of a deity who is the deity of scribal writing, namely Nabû. In such scribal writings, we find a wide variety of genres, many of which are incantations and rituals. Within a text which lays out the texts required for an individual to read if they wish to become an exorcist, a line references incantations and rituals which are “designed to avoid plague or pestilence” [5]. Though done tentatively, I suggest that Sargon II requests Nanay to aid in preventing pestilence because her divine family is in charge of writing and scribal practices. Thus, they would have special knowledge of certain rituals and incantations which impact crops.

Furthermore, invoking Nanay as a means of preventing pestilence fits well with apotropaic magic, magic designed to prevents a particular, bad outcome [6]. This is notable because magic was, in many respects, tied to the notion of writing in the ancient world [7]. In light of the close relationship between magic and writing, it is, therefore, reasonable for Sargon II to invoke Nanay and implore her to prevent pestilence as a sort of apotropaic magic.

So, in summary, understanding the cultural context of any text is integral to understanding what it is expressing and the logic of what it is expressing. Thus, I have sought to demonstrate this principal by offering a few examples from the prayer of Sargon II to Nanay.

 [1] Translations from Benjamin Foster, An Akkadian Anthology (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), pp. 788-790. To read the text, visit and find SAA 03 004.

[2] Foster (2005), 788.

[3] M. Stol, “Nanea,” in Dictionary of Demons and Deities, ed. Van der Toorn et. al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 611-614. For a more detailed history of Nanay, see Tawny L. Holm, “Nanay and Her Lover: An Aramaic Sacred Marriage Text from Egypt,” in JNES 76 (2017), pp. 1-37 (link). For more on Nanay at Borsippa as the husband of Nabû and as Nanaya Ehurshaba, see C. Waerzeggers, The Ezida Temple of Borsippa: Priesthood, Cult, Archives, Achaemenid History 15 (Leiden, 2010), 22, 26–27.

[4] Grant Frame and A.R. George, “The Royal Libraries of Nineveh: New Eivdence for King Ashurbanipal’s Tablet Collecting, in Iraq, Vol. 67, No. 1, Nineveh, Papers of the 49th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part Two (2005), pg. 265. This is supported by the role of Ezida, Nabu’s temple, as a center for scholasticism, an archaeological site wherein 250 scholarly tablets were discovered near the shrine to Nabu. For a simple overview, see this link.

[5] M. J. Geller, “2 The Exorcist’s Manual (KAR 44),” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pg. 306. Text available here:

[6] ] M. J. Geller, “2 The Exorcist’s Manual (KAR 44),” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pg. 306.

[7] This issue is discussed in an unpublished paper of mine. I hope to publish the discussion in the future. If you are interested in my comments, please email me or leave a comment. Moreover, consider Part 1 of the Exorcist’s manual published by Ulrike Steinert, “1 The Assur Medical Catalogue,” in Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination, ed. Ulruke Steinert (de Gruyter, 2018), pp. 203-291. The colophon for this text is translated by Steinert as follows: “[Written according to an older original and?] collated. [Tablet of…] …, the young physician, [son of …, the] shangu-priest of Baba, from the midst of the city Assur.”  This is important because it highlights the role of the physician as both (a) performing incantations and rituals and (b) functioning as a scribe to write down such incantations and rituals. This demonstrates, again, a relationship between text and the physician/exorcist who performs magic.

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